On Meeting Artist Adger Cowans

We celebrate one another as heroes. We collect material effects; gather signatures. Some of us count ourselves as especially fortunate when we move past representations and get-together with the fleshy person here and now. We part and invest their memories with meanings that we nurture in community. And, by our efforts, we generate culture to live by. 

On September 20 and 21, 2022, I shared some time with artist Adger Cowans (b.1936) and a group of people that was assembled to celebrate the opening of an exhibit “The Eyes See What the Heart Feels” and the launch of the book Adger, published by 21st Editions whose business is “the art of the book.”

I was not familiar with the artist’s work before this. He would be presented to me as a multi-disciplinary artist and professional photographer in the tradition of his mentor, former Minneapolis-Saint Paul resident, Gordon Parks (1912-2006). 

I was invited to make music at the exhibit opening with my friends Anthony Cox and Scott Fultz. We were to improvise guided by line drawings from Cowans’s sketchbooks. The band rehearsed several times to Adger’s drawings and spent some time looking at other works in order to get a sense for his range. It was apparent that fundamental forms, the familiar and play are important to him. As is a kind of ethos that views artists as mediators of cosmic forces that we don’t and can’t own. To paraphrase James Baldwin in “Sonny’s Blues”: there is sound emerging from the void, we catch it for a moment, give it some shape and let it go. Adger said that The body is a templeit receives.  And, so, we decided to call the band The Temple Trio and to keep forms in mind as we played with his drawings. 

Eventually, Agder came to town for a few days. The night before the performance the larger group met at Khyber Pass Cafe in Saint Paul to break chocolate cake in celebration of Adger’s 86th birthday. The body is a temple that receives and dies; so Adger had on his party hat, graciously celebrating back here in the second line with the rest of us. Giving. 

I asked him questions based on my reading of his self-published autobiography Art in the Moment: Life and Times of Adger Cowans (2019). I spent much of my time in graduate school tracing a kind of unofficial cultural history of African Americans centered on the lives of Black bohemians artists, many male expats among them. Tracing is a kind of recovery of presence that a Jim Crowed world would rather forget. I had discovered that Adger had been a kindred to many artists I learned about in my time in the subterranean archives as a graduate student. We were underground on purpose, he said, but was happy to share his first-person account of the mereological mind that artists like Ted Joans, Clarence Major, William Melvin Kelley and Jack Whitten would generate as their contribution to the Black Arts Movement. He made a declaration like We knew we were Black and so we were free to explore abstraction. 

He also remembered family and Columbus, Ohio. We talked about the Underwood name (my family name) that circulates near Dayton. He remembered the sudden impact of Civil Rights legislation on the Jim Crow atmosphere and the lingering resentments of some of his elders. He remembered eventually setting out for the east coast into the cities that sounded of a Black modernist advance. He remembered making more money in one day of taking photographs than his father did in a month. 

Adger told stories about seeing John Coltrane perform, having once been serenaded by Thelonius Monk and having once been kicked out of Miles Davis’s house by Miles himself. Miles is, of course, famous for serious performances of the brooding Byronic hero and cool Black masculine modern. But Adger remembers a later encounter that was sweet; where Miles played the nurturing and invested elder to bright Black minds.

In fact, Adger remembered that the blood community that he left back home in the habitus of Ohio translated to affiliative Black city bonds that, to me, debunked myths I still carry about the post-bop world as a sporting life of crazy alienated artistic geniuses. Those too cool for any kind of family, especially the middle class set. To the contrary, his memories of Trane and Monk seem domestic, if also public. For instance, after I asked what he thought of assigning John Coltrane’s music the label “spiritual jazz,” Adger related the something like the following:

Trane was delayed and so Elvin Jones took a 40 minute solo. When Trane arrived he made his way around the room to greet his people and to listen to what Elvin was generating. Then Trane joined the drummer and took the lead. Had the attendees thought they were transported by the Elvin’s invocation, the next hour or so would really show them the way.

John Coltrane by Adger Cowans from the book Adger (21st Editions, 2022)

After high school Adger visited NYC with some homeboys from Ohio. Thelonius Monk was in residence at a club downtown where the audiences were mostly white. Adger remembered: You could go backstage in those days; it was as if the musicians were happy to see Black people in the audience. So they went back to see Monk who, noticing their approach, guessed You must be the kids from Ohio before he sat them down next to the piano for a private concert. Then Monk went and played to the downtown audience. 

(Those of us who know the ingrained habits of patriarchal historiography would do well to pause to pour libations for Alice Coltrane and Nellie Monk.)

I took some things for him to sign that night we celebrated Adger’s birthday at Khyber Pass: his autobiography and an LP of author William Melivn Kelley (1937-2017) reading from some of his novels. The dust jacket of William Melvin Kelley Reads His Own Works  features an iconic photograph by Adger Cowan. When I showed Adger the recording he exclaimed: Oh wow, I never got a copy of this from him. I once shared a photograph of the LP with William Melvin Kelley on social media and he had forgotten about the record. Kelley died in 2017 and, so, I offered my copy of the LP to Adger who, thankfully, accepted it. 

The next night Anthony Cox, Scott Fultz and I interpreted some of Adger’s drawings. At one point Adger came over to the band with his phone out. We could see a Black woman on the screen who, when he panned to me (the youngest member of the group), appeared to frown and ask: What’s he gonna do? I replied to her teasing with light determination: I can play! Then I heard Adger say They’re playing my drawings! He seemed pleased and, after we had played, he approached me with the LP and asked that I sign it to him. I, of course, did. 

Photo of Adger Cowans, Anthony Cox, Scott Fultz and Davu Seru by Tim Campbell
Photo of Davu Seru and Adger Cowans by RJ Kern

Adger returned home. A couple of weeks later I received by mail a signed copy of the beautiful new book by 21st Editions. It is inscribed:

Davu–Many thanks for the music! Adger Cowans. 

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